One of my children really liked to make messes when she was small. You take a kid who is curious, who is sensory seeking and who is creative and you get a lot of messes. (Many of you are nodding and sighing and wringing out a sponge ready to clean up your own child’s brand new mess.) This child of mine used to find new and unusual ways to make already messy things even messier. She used to find a particularly sticky or wet or ooky thing and she had to take it to the next level, wondering how it felt or how it smelled or how it might look over here instead of over there or what might happen if she dipped a stuffed animal into it.
Now I have to give her some credit because even when she was small she would clean up her messes with the caveat that first she had to realize that they were messes. If she didn’t realize it then I would find it eventually and she was generally amenable to being handed a sponge and being told to go to work. Most of the time I could be pretty calm about it. I understood how it was for her — she often didn’t realize that the mess has begun until it was already pretty crazy. At the first part she would be in the moment. She would be humming and swishing her hands through the soapsuds for quite some time before she realized that the soapsuds have spilled out of the sink onto the book she brought into the bathroom with her or that the water was running out of the sink onto her shoes. She was very in that moment, focused, experiencing the mess. And when she did realize it, she was often dismayed. She did not want to be that messy girl all the time. She didn’t like having to come tell me what happened so I could help her figure out how to clean it up.
My way of dealing with it was to emphasize how responsible she was even before she knew what responsible was. So when I came into her bedroom and saw that she’d found a stray bottle of black tempera paint and that her resulting art projects had gotten out of control I would say, in a calm (but certainly sometimes simmering) voice, “I know you are a responsible person so I expect you to take responsibility for this.”
And she would as much as she could and I would help her the rest of the way.
Eventually when she spilled her soup after deciding to fix herself a little snack she would say, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’m responsible. I’ll take care of it.”
I was thinking about this because we sometimes have to fight not to give a messy child a negative self concept because she happens to be a messy person. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there.
When things were NOT messy, I would sometimes talk about what a creative, curious person my messy child was (and remains) and how sometimes this makes for messes and then I would add, “But you are so responsible, you always clean them up. Even if you whine a little first, you take responsibility for it and you take care of it.”
Jean Luc Picard has faith that the messes will lessen. Trust him.
I said this before it was true. I said this when the only reason she took responsibility was because I stood over her and coached her through it. I said this even when her efforts made things worse as she toddled behind me imitating me cleaning it up. I said it to make it true. My husband and I gave her that self concept, “You are responsible” and we are still giving it to her because we are like Picard, we are saying, “Make it so.”
The other thing I would do is tell her that it’s OK to be a little kid and to be messy. I would say, “Yes, you are having trouble with X but that’s because you are X age and kids who are X age are learning about that.” So when my child was lamenting her propensity for messes, I would say, “You make messes because you are learning. You will get bigger and you will make fewer messes. Besides it doesn’t matter as long as you take responsibility for your messes, which you do.”
I’m not trying to pretend that I didn’t tear out my hair or stomp around or holler because I did those things, too; after all I’m human. When I saw yet another roll of toilet paper ruined or another bar of soap squished into wet oblivion I sometimes did not behave with an iota of grace or patience. But we worked on it together and I trusted that if I said it often enough and gave her the tools, she would get better. And happily she has. She’s still creative and she’s still messy but she’s also independently responsible about cleaning things up 99% (ok, maybe 96%) of the time.
So these are my parenting tips for loving our messy kids: Act like Picard (“Make it so”) and give them a little perspective (“It’s normal to do XYZ but my job is to help you grow out of it”). Not necessarily in that order.
Did you know that dreaming is a little like defragmenting your brain?
I don’t have to defragment my computer anymore (does anyone? or is it just a Mac thing that my computer does it for me when I’m not looking?) but I used to like doing it because I liked watching everything get consolidated on the progress screen.
This is how my friend Mart explained computer defragmentation to me. I don’t know if this is his metaphor or not but it’s a good one.
Let’s say you wrote a 500 page paper. It takes up a tidy little space on your desk in your office, it’s all consolidated and in order and you can read through it quickly to find exactly the information that you need.
Now let’s say that you take those 500 pages and you head out to a football field. You toss all of the paper up into the air and the wind catches it and blows it all over the field. Now can you read it easily? Can you find the information you need quickly and easily?
When you defrag your hard drive, you re-consolidate all of the information so your computer runs more quickly and more smoothly.
I listened to this old show from Radiolab awhile back on Sleep and they describe dreaming a little bit like Mart described defragging your hard drive. At least that’s the way I heard it.
See, you only have so much room for memory in your brain and you are like a little PacMan during the day, eating up events and storing them in your head. At the end of the day you sleep and your brain defrags your brain to make room for the things you need. It discards little things (the name of your server at the restaurant you ate at that morning, the color of socks your co-worker was wearing) and consolidates the things you paid more attention to. The more attention you pay to something, the stronger the signal that this is something for your brain to hold onto.
Radiolab explains that this is why a musician can practice a song all day, trying to get it right, and then wake up the next morning and play it perfectly. It’s why sometimes you might go to bed at night fretting about a project you’re working on and wake up knowing exactly how to tackle it.
As our brain quietly re-organizes itself, it puts the pieces back together so that the thoughts that persevered through our day — through chit-chat with the server whose name you forgot, through your overview of your co-worker’s outfit right down to the socks — are finally reunited and you are better able to tackle the things that matter to you and that you’ve been working on and thinking on.
When you think of dreams this way they make more sense, too. It’s your dream mind rummaging through your day’s events — every little thing you did or said or thought — and rearranging them. No wonder your sixth-grade crush might show up sitting next to the canned ham you put aside for the food bank on the boat you’re thinking of renting for next year’s vacation.
Now isn’t that interesting? And see why you need to make sure you’re getting that all important REM sleep?
Of course we need copyeditors, even with spellcheck and grammar check and all the fancy whizbang add-ons to our word processing software but if you are a writer, you need an editor — someone to help you with content and flow and direction. You will need them even if you’ve gotten this far without them. You won’t get better unless you have one.
I know this for myself and I know this for other writers, too, because when I was wearing my professional editor hat (for various publications) I wasn’t just the person writing unfinished essays that I thought were already perfect; I was also receiving unfinished essays the authors already thought were perfect. I’m here to tell you that I am always wrong when I think my piece is just dandy and so were most of the writers submitting to me and you probably are, too.
If you are doing a lot of writing — even publishing a lot of writing – and you are not getting good edits, you should find someone to step in. You can pay someone or join a writing group or find a friend with a keenly critical eye but you should get someone to help you be a better writer because I’ll tell you, I think it hurts a lot of great writers to write a long time without some objective help.
Ok, I know there are geniuses among us (I am most certainly NOT one) and I also know that there are regular people who can dash off something brilliant once in a great while (I have had this happen — but it is a rare thing and I cherish it!) but most of us need help. We need new eyes, we need to rewrite — we need editors.
A good editor is a blessed thing. Someone who can see the structure hiding in your prose and help you tease it out is no small miracle. A good editor makes you a better writer. A good editor makes you read your final draft and marvel at its form and movement. A good editor will push and prod you to say what you think you’ve said but actually kept tucked somewhere up behind your brain. They will ask questions that the reader will ask. They will force you to state what you think is obvious but is really obscure.
A good editor’s suggestions may frustrate you or even make you cry but if they’re good, you can trust them. How will you know that you can trust them? Because after you are done being frustrated and after you’ve wiped away your tears you will realize they are right. You will look at the piece and wonder how in the world you ever thought it could be written any other way. You will realize that what you dismissed as “dumb suggestions” are actually a chance for you to answer your readers’ questions before they’ve even asked them.
Because I really want to bring home what a good editor can do for you, I got permission from Brain Child Mag to share the pdf of an essay I pitched to them with their edits. I believe that Tracy Mayor and Stephanie Wilkinson did the edits on this one. You can download the original essay I submitted here, then the marked up copy here (both in pdf format), and finally go read the finished piece, Textured (you can print the final essay from their web site if you want to do a side by side).
You can see how the piece remained itself but was refined through their questions and suggestions. You can see how the structure was tightened and became more focused. I’ll tell you that I did cry after I got the edits because I thought I already nailed it but I took some time away from it and I called a wonderful writer friend and then I sat down and rewrote it. It’s ok to fuss and flutter and whine when you get feedback and you’re tired and grumpy and sick to death of the piece you thought was done already (as long as you don’t whine to the editor) and it’s fine to have some back and forth to clarify (I think between this first go-through and the final I did ask some questions about their questions) but if you trust your editor (and I implicitly trust the editors of Brain Child) then eventually you need to sit with what they’re asking and figure out how to answer it.
Now here I have to give a shout out for the best editor I’ve ever had, my friend Rebecca Steinitz. I’ve been fortunate to have her eyes for a number of different projects and she is always always always right when she gives me feedback. Always. She can slice through my meandering and find a point I didn’t even know I had. She can eyeball a piece and immediately see what’s superfluous. She does not sugarcoat her feedback but she is always kind. And being a writer herself she knows that writing is its own special kind of hell so she will appreciate the work you put into a piece even as she hands it back and tells you to do it over.
If you don’t have a Becca in your life or can’t afford to hire her but want to become a better writer, I highly encourage you to find a great crit group (and I know how hard that is to come by but keep trying!) or start submitting your work to places where you will have an editor. It’s all fine and dandy to cash those paychecks from, say, Demand Studios or Examiner.com but if you want to be a better writer you can’t stay there. (I’d even argue that sticking around too long someplace where you’re not edited will eventually hurt you by making you lazy and trite.) You may not get paid at Literary Mama but you will get a committed editor and a nice clip, which may help you more in the long run.
Because we all of us — every last one — need an editor.
Note: This post did not have an editor. It would be much better if it did.